No, we don't think that there's an app for that
Thoughts on our participation at UnionHack 2020

24 Nov 2020

We participated at the UnionHack event on November 20/21st and want to give some insight into our motivation to participate and our experience.

The IT industry is shaping (or at least is producing the means for this process) our economy and society in quite drastic ways, AI digitalization and platform economy are just some of the keywords which describe aspects of this process. While in principle the merits of automated data processing and software could be used to create a more sustainable economy and better working conditions for everyone, quite the opposite is happening: consumerism, destruction of nature, precarious working conditions and the surveillance state are on the rise. Ironically enough, the PR campaigns of the tech companies are rather successful in selling those changes with a vocabulary that fuels dreams of self-organization, inclusion, participation and democracy.

From that (very brief) analysis it should follow that if you work or study in this field, you should reflect on your role in this process and how to contribute to change. That’s what we found interesting about the hackathon. Labour unions are often (even from the left) seen as actors that are incapable of stopping the destabilizing “disruptions” of the platform economy and that instead have lost many fights since the rise of neo-liberalism. Also, it’s obvious that they can not match the resources and knowledge of capital in terms of technical innovation. So why not spend a weekend trying to find out which problems of labour unions can be solved with technology?

Still, we had three initial concerns that (at least partially) still hold after the event:

  1. Tech solutionism: No, we don’t think that “there is an app for that”. On the contrary: most social and political problems could and should be solved with the very non-digital praxis of wealth distribution and democratization of society. Labour Unions should not fall into the trap of thinking that they can solve their problems by getting a new shiny app or even an “AI-solution” from some technical experts. An example for this kind of thinking manifested itself in the recurring idea of using churn-prediction systems to detect and prevent people from leaving unions. We understand that the loss of members is a huge concern for union leadership, but the idea that a union should treat its members, like e.g. an insurance company its customers, is in our view part of the very problem that makes unions unattractive for workers. There are obviously different political ideas on how to organize and they translate into very different positions towards the vast amount of potential technical tools. Only thinking from the side of what is possible to realize tends to prevent necessary discussions from happening.
  2. The use of typical start-up lingo catchphrases is closely related to tech solutionism. We think they are not some random byproduct of start-up culture but an essential part of the integration of our desires into the project of (tech-) neo-liberalism. One of its purposes is to hide conflicts of interest in the workplaces behind slogans that refer to participation and self-organization. In the end, it aims to make workers emotionally invested in problems that aren’t theirs. Powerful union work should neither be based on nor driven by permanently creative, disruptive and entrepreneurial spirited individuals, which are only bored and exhausted by more self-optimization in the name of profit, but by a sense of solidarity and collective empowerment.
  3. The role of the company behind the hackathon. While we are happy to donate our labour to help the unions and strengthen their position, we still have mixed feelings about the company that organized the event. We know that it is a lot of work to gather such a wide spectrum of union officials, brainstorm their problems, translate them in a challenge format, organize participation, teams, jury, side events and so on. We also acknowledge that at until the present time no other actor was able or willing to do so. However, it is quite ironic that 20 highly motivated teams produce software prototypes for free – because they want to advance the power of labour unions – and get paid with the proverbial prize money and pizza while the results are co-owned by a private company1 that aims to sell such software.

The Hackathon

After looking at different problems we quickly decided to work on a problem described by two IG BAU secretaries because it came close to our own understanding of what digital tools can do for unions or social movements. Their work consists of finding and visiting construction sites, asking the workers about working conditions and problems. The gathered information is crucial for their strategies, especially in the preparation of strikes. Putting the hand-written information in their computer systems in the evening is a boring and tedious task that wastes a lot of their time.

We built a prototype of an app that allows to fill in their surveys on a mobile device, feeds the results directly to a database and creates a view of the current state of organizing efforts on a handy map/dashboard. We were thrilled to work with secretaries who actually are doing union ground-work and to develop ideas that make their work more easy and effective. We also think that such a tool could not only be useful for unions, but for each organizing campaign that consists of visiting a large amount possibly wide-spread (work)places. Working on the tool led to further ideas on how the work of a typical union official could be spread and democratized. The first idea that we implemented was a feature to crowd-source the location of construction sites. While this is only an experimental feature, it shows that discussions about organization, political strategies and the implementation of technical tools should be closely related.

Building a functioning prototype of such a tool in a cooperative and fun environment and in a tiny timeframe was a great experience that showed us that using our technical skills does not have to be restricted by the typical goals and structures of work under capitalism.

Last but not least, the solution and video we provided could raise some interest in the participants of the hackathon who voted us in the final round. Thanks to all organizers, participants and union members who provided their curiosity, insights and work for this event.

  1. EDIT: We learned that IG BAU as well as IG Metall are associates of Labour Digital, so our criticism, that a privately owned company benefits off of the free labour of developers does not apply to its full extend.